Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

No, Joel Embiid didn’t cheat during the NBA Skills Challenge

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The Internet got itself all in a huff on Saturday as they watched the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge. In particular, the matchup between Chicago Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen and Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid stirred up a bit of controversy.

Specifically, folks accused Embiid of cheating.

During the passing section of the obstacle course, Embiid didn’t actually make any of his passes into the ring. He then proceeded on the next section and was neck-and-neck with Markkanen as they tried to finish out the head-to-head competition. Markkanen won, but that didn’t stop folks from saying the 76ers All-Star had circumvented the rules.

We now know that’s not true.

According to the rules (provided on the NBA media site, page 47 of the 2018 NBA All-Star Media Guide) Embiid was allowed to move onto the next section even though he hadn’t completed any of his passes. A player only has to exhaust the rack, not complete a pass. It appears rules sort of assume that if a player stands there trying to complete a pass three times they’ll fall so far behind they won’t be able to catch up.

Re-watching the video, it appears Embiid knew this rule to the game and figured if he didn’t make the first one he would quickly try to blast the next two passes off the rack so he could then move onto the next section.

Embiid even took to Twitter to head off accusations that he had cheated.

Via Twitter:

Trust. The. Process.

Rumor: Jeff Hornacek shoved Joakim Noah during confrontation

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The saga between the New York Knicks and Joakim Noah has been ongoing for sometime, with the latest story being that there was some kind of verbal altercation between the former All-Star big man and head coach Jeff Hornacek.

Noah has not played for the team since Jan. 23, and he is now separated from the Knicks as they try to find a solution to shed him from their roster.

We now have a better idea of what kind of urgency New York has to make that move.

A report from the New York Daily News has given us more information about the confrontation between Noah and Hornacek. The latest addition to the story is that it was not just words between the Knicks coach and Noah, and that Hornacek actually pushed Noah first during the confrontation.

The two then had to be separated.

Via NYDN:

Noah was banished from the Knicks after an altercation with coach Jeff Hornacek during a practice last month. The disagreement stemmed from Noah’s lack of playing time, and it turned physical the day after he logged only five minutes against the Warriors.

While no punches were thrown, the Daily News learned that Hornacek was the first to shove Noah before they had to be separated.

In our last update on this story, Dan outlined how that could be made possible. No team is going to trade for Noah at this juncture in his career, so the only real option for New York is to waive him.

Here’s how that looks, according to our own Dan Feldman:

If the Knicks waive Noah without a buyout, they’d have two options after paying out the rest of his $17,765,000 salary this season:

Pay Noah $18,530,000 next season and $19,295,000 the following season
Pay Noah $7,565,000 each of the following five years via the stretch provision

It just keeps getting weirder and weirder during a lost season in the Big Apple.

Kobe Bryant tells Shaq he was planning to leave Lakers for Bulls (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal got their three championships together as members of the Los Angeles Lakers. The two stars were part of the three-peat team that won in 2000, 2001, and 2002. But the story that perhaps overshadows those accomplishments in the modern era is the story of Kobe vs. Shaq, and the long-standing beef that was between the players even after they split in 2004.

The back-and-forth between the two is part of the fabric not just of the Lakers, but of pop culture as it surrounds basketball. The Shaq/Kobe beef even has it’s own Wikipedia page that’s longer and more well-sourced than most of the papers I wrote in college. It’s impressive.

Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq sat down in a long special that aired on Saturday as All-Star Weekend ramped up that revealed quite a bit about their time together and their relationship. One of the more interesting anecdotes was Kobe telling Shaq that he was planning on leaving the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls in 2004. That plan was quashed when the team sent O’Neal to the Miami Heat in July.

Via Twitter:

That would have been a major shift for LA and for Chicago. The Bulls drafted both Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon that year, and traded for Luol Deng. The team improved by 24 wins the following season, and adding Bryant may have altered that trajectory and of course sent shockwave of consequential changes through the league. Heck, Scottie Pippen retired that October, but perhaps he would have stayed for one more year with Kobe?

The rest of the interview was interesting, and there were lots of tidbits of information that had people talking. Bryant and O’Neal rehashed their fights, Shaq’s infamous rap dissing Kobe, and mooning Sacramento Kings fans after beating them in the 2002 playoffs.

The biggest takeaway from the interview was how the one-upsmanship between Shaq and Kobe, although subtle, still remains.

As context, Bryant has done a fair bit of career revisionism as he tries to alter his public image now that he’s not a player. He’s painted himself as a “storyteller” and has tried to make his single-mindedness appear praiseworthy rather than destructive. It’s mostly so he can sell shoes well into his 50s à la Michael Jordan.

In the sit down between the two Lakers greats, Shaq did some legacy revision of his own. He played off his continuous egging of Bryant over their careers as simple media manipulation, calling himself a master marketer. It really was a thing to see something that hilariously disingenuous, especially as much of the conversation between the two — including many admissions on each side — were about times they made each other sincerely angry.

The two finished the interview by taking photos next to some championship trophies (Kobe with more, of course) and exchanging laughs and hugs.

You can watch the full interview in the video above.

JJ Redick appears to use racial slur toward Chinese fans

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Chinese New Year was February 16, and now we’ve rolled over to the Year of the Dog. The NBA has a huge presence internationally in China, and so its video partner across the Pacific put together a compilation video of NBA players wishing people a happy new year.

The only problem? In one cut of the video that has been making the rounds on social media, Philadelphia 76ers guard JJ Redick appears to use a racial slur aimed at those of Chinese descent.

The instance is absent from the official video, but a reaction-style YouTube video captured a different edit of the Year of the Dog video with Redick still in it. Redick appears to say, “I just wanted to wish all the NBA c—k fans in China a very happy Chinese New Year.”

Redick responded on Twitter, saying he was simply tongue-tied.

It’s difficult to judge intention from a distance, but the result is certainly disappointing. Even with Redick’s apology, it seems possible he’s contacted by the league office as part of a disciplinary inquiry.